Review of The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata
© by Jessica Schneider, 8/21/10
In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill
Harford (Tom Cruise) wanders the empty streets of New York City and begins to
view life around him as it pertains to sex. Everything is sexualized, in fact,
and viewers are left in a state of suspension: is this reality or is this dream?
In Yasunari Kawabata’s novel The Sound of the Mountain, the lead
character, Ogata Shingo, is similar to the Bill Harford character in Eyes
Wide Shut, save for instead of viewing the world sexually, Shingo views the
life around him as it relates to death. As Shingo nears the end of his life, he
continually hears the far rumble of the mountain, reminding him each time that
death is approaching. And it is through this rumination on death that Shingo
also ruminates about his life, including the number of personal relationship
disappointments he has experienced.
Set in post World War II Japan, Shingo views his position as a husband
and father according to the relationships around him—his married son is
engaging in an affair, his daughter’s marriage is failing, and his wife is
described as being “no beauty.” Immediately, Kawabata establishes the
complexity of the relationships at hand by layering in both psychological and
observational depth, which relieves the book from falling into the category of
soap opera. It is interesting, because when I think of Kawabata’s novels, they
remind me of a cross between the films of Ozu and those of Bergman. On surface
level, many could read something like The Sound of the Mountain and
dismiss it as “boring” or a novel where “nothing much happens.” And if
one is looking for action packed plot, then Kawabata would not be the novelist
to pursue. Yet actually, much goes on in his novels—they are packed with
subtlety and drama that on the surface could seem ordinary, but the fact that
they are not, only makes them more interesting.
In the opening chapter, the narrator describes Yasuko, Shingo’s wife,
as sixty-three, a year older than her husband, though she is someone who is
“young for her age.” Their relationship is introduced in the following
“Yasuko was no beauty. In their younger years she had looked older than
he, and had disliked being seen in public with him.
Shingo could not have said at what age she had begun to look the younger
of the two.”
More metaphors contrasting life and death (and old and young) occur when
there is a litter of young puppies birthed beneath the floors of Shingo’s
house. That the litter is “dropped,” as in, appearing suddenly, rather than
expected, coincides with the two unexpected pregnancies that occur in the novel.
One pregnancy is with Shuichi’s, (Shingo’s son) mistress who decides to keep
the child and the other with Shuichi’s wife, who decides to abort it.
Other moments of Shingo’s lifelong introspection involve scenes where
he comments on the fact that despite he is an aged man, he has not ever climbed
Mount Fuji. As the narrator notes: “They were words that came out of nothing,
but they seemed to him somehow significant. He muttered them over again.”
The Sound of the Mountain deals much more with the valleys of life,
rather than the peaks. It is an introspective and retrospective look on the
vistas of these valleys and the very often Shingo is lamenting over not having
experienced more “peaks.” Yet the introspective questioning involved is what
makes the novel realistic in the best sense. Kawabata litters the novel with
what on the surface appears to be average occurrences, such as the opening to
the final chapter, where Shingo admits to having forgotten how to tie his
necktie. He associates the loss of control for such a perfunctory task as
equivalent to facing a collapse, or a “loss of self.” Then, in this rather
mechanical task, Shingo is literally at the hands of his daughter in law, who is
also unable to tie it. As result, Shingo’s wife then takes over, who also
admits to not remembering very well how to tie it. Yet when he feels a slight
choking sensation from her tying, Shingo shuts his eyes and then hears the roar
of the mountain. He then looks in the mirror and notices she did not tie it
right, and so he reties it himself.
A subtle scene as this could easily be dismissed as nothing significant, but it reveals Shingo’s loss of control, even if just for a moment. One does not necessarily need to be suffering Alzheimer’s to evoke old age or a loss of control associated with old age. Kawabata inserts metaphors like those involving the necktie and also the birth of the puppies and allows them to illuminate on their own, without over-explanation. In fact, most of the time there is no explanation other than how the scene relates to the context. The Sound of the Mountain is an excellent novel, but one I would rank below his masterpiece Snow Country and also Beauty and Sadness. While The Sound of the Mountain shares much of the same complexity of those other two works, it is difficult to compare them, since I have found that Kawabata’s novels only improve following reading. It is possible the same will occur with this one. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, the prose is spare yet rich and well worded. Each scene layers upon one another, building a richness of setting and introspection that lasts.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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